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Fear of CTE may be unnecessarily freaking out football players


One of the more dire messages from League of Denial came from Dr. Ann McKee. At one point in the two-hour documentary, Dr. McKee wonders aloud whether all football players, from every level, have Chronic Traumatic Encephelopathy due to the constant, low-level banging of helmets on the gridiron.

For anyone whose child plays now (like mine) or who played in the ‘70s with those crappy suspension helmets that had no real padding and a translucent single-bar mask that sprouted into two bars near the middle (like me), it’s a chilling thought.

It’s far more chilling for the men who played football every year, from age six through 36. Are they a week, a month, or a year removed from becoming the next Mike Webster?

Dr. Matt McCarthy addresses this dynamic in a new article posted at Deadspin. Decades of efforts to suppress the true risks of head injuries could now yield to panic, with anyone who played organized football fearing the kinds of cognitive problems that could end his life or at a minimum ruin it.

Dr. McCarthy points out that, regardless of whether football players are determined to have CTE, the connection to concussions still has not been established by the scientific community: “At the 4th International Conference on Concussion in Sport . . . world experts gathered to discuss the state of head-trauma science. At the end of the conference, a consensus statement was released that said the following: ‘A cause and effect relationship has not as yet been demonstrated between CTE and concussions or exposure to contact sports.’

“The statement runs counter to almost everything you have read about CTE, but it received virtually no media attention in the United States when it was released,” Dr. McCarthy explains. “In part, that’s because it speaks to the far higher burden of proof in the scientific community than the one in the public consciousness. But that’s the point. The popular consensus has far outstripped the science.”

It’s an important point. Yes, the brains of plenty of deceased football players show evidence of CTE. But that doesn’t mean everyone who has it will become unstable or suicidal or unable to function cognitively. There is much to be learned about both the cause and the consequences of the condition.

“For those of us involved in clinical research and accustomed to the sluggish pace of medical advancement, this is not surprising,” Dr. McCarthy writes. “Some physicians -- including [Dr. McKee] -- are understandably uncomfortable with this. As she put it to one of the few reporters who covered the consensus statement: ‘This is a time that calls for immediate action to reduce the amount of head trauma experienced by athletes in all sports to prevent CTE. And it is now irresponsible to justify inaction by requesting a level of scientific proof that will take decades to acquire.’ There is no comprehensive body of research into head injuries, but there’s enough to start thinking about change. So McKee and others have chosen to bang the drum, loudly, even if they can’t be sure of the exact message once we’re listening.”

So what do we now know about head injuries? We know, as common sense would have suggested even in the days when football players without helmets believed growing long hair would protect their brains, that it’s not good to ram your head into things. We know that concussions need to be spotted promptly and managed properly. We know that some NFL players develop brain damage and conditions like Alzheimer’s and ALS.

Connecting the dots to specific causes and consequences will, as Dr. McCarthy explains, take time. As the research is conducted, it’s important to not yield to the potential for hysteria that goes along with dire, but to date unsubstantiated, predictions of a nation of male middle-aged zombies who can’t function due to the brain damage that comes from playing football at any level, for any amount of time.